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In 1960, thirteen-year-old Chris Hughes called a post pattern to his homeroom and junior high school crony, Steve Pallesen. It was a daring call given that Pallesen was not noted for his speed. Deftly avoiding pass rush, Hughes lobbed a pass that closely resembled a wounded duck. Pallesen’s pattern was a bit sloppy, but when the defender, Rod Covington slipped, Pallesen found himself wide open as he streaked downfield. The high arc of the pass appeared to be proved to be unerringly on target as it pierced the light blue early morning sky. What is curious about the otherwise mundane play is the ball has returned to earth each fall for forty-nine years with the kind of faithfulness that would put most dogs to shame. Science fiction? The work of Stephen King? No, welcome to the “Turkey Bowl” where the same players have been playing the same game, on the same field, on the same day, at the same time without exception for forty-nine consecutive years!
Everyone agrees that Thanksgiving is a notable holiday. It is a day filled with historic significance for our great country as well as a homecoming celebration for family and friends. It is usually a fun and friendship filled day unless one happens to be turkey. However, for a special group of ageless wonders in Oklahoma City, it is also marks a rather unique annual gathering.
Every Thanksgiving morning at precisely 9 a.m., a group of men gathers outside the main gate of Taft Stadium, the vintage, W.P.A. constructed red brick landmark adjacent to Taft Junior High School. The field has played home to high school, semi pro and even women’s football. Remember the Oklahoma City Dolls? More times than not, this is the only time each year that most of the players of the “Turkey Bowl” actually come in contact with each other.
The game usually lasts only an hour or so. Once, the games were longer. But young legs have begrudgingly surrendered to the afflictions of aging. Now the first burning issue facing the players is “does anyone have a key to the gate?” It wasn’t always so. Originally, players crawled through a small hole in the fence. Of course, competitors were also smaller since they were in the 7th grade at the time.
As the years passed, participants no longer able to find a hole in the fence, would pry the chain link gates wide enough apart so as to allow members of to wiggle through. Eventually, expanding waistlines took a toll and no one could slither through the gap. For a decade or so, step ladders where retrieved from nearby parent’s garages so players could gain entrance by climbing over the gate. Today, to the relief of everyone, a key to the gate graciously provided by the Oklahoma City Athletic Director now does the trick.
When first approached about a key, the same director said it was against city policy to provide one, but he would happily meet the players and open the gate Thanksgiving morning. When he was five minutes late, one of the players pulled a bolt cutter out of his truck and solved the problem. Just then, a car wheeled into the parking lot. It was the gentleman with the key. When he spotted the lock, which was now neatly halved, he naturally inquired what had happened? A dozen or so fifty-year-old men all looked at each other and with a shrug of their shoulders all proclaimed their innocence. Then, without hesitation each swore “they didn’t have a clue.” The athletic director, a man in his thirties, showed respect for his elders and wisely said “come by next week and pick up a key.”
The annual “Turkey Bowl” has been played in weather that has ranged from sunshine, fog, rain, wind and even snow. At the inaugural event, populated by boys with resilient young bodies and egos that didn’t know better, the game was strictly a tackle affair. As the decades slipped by, flag football belts were introduced, then, the game evolved into “two hands below,” and eventually, “one below.” Today, with the youngest members in their early sixties, the only action required is to claim that you think you touched an opponent in order for the ball carrier to be down. Nobody argues the point, which in a way, is the point.
Of course, what is notable isn’t the rules or even long-standing, traditional pre-game player selections. Once sides were based strictly on talent. Today, team composition is mostly a tribal affair with original grade school affiliations such as Cleveland “Bulldogs,” Monroe “Redbirds” and Madison “Magpies” on one team versus Sequoyah “Bobcats,” Mayfair “Chipmunks” and Kaiser” Kangaroos” on the other. Who is on which side doesn’t matter much anymore. The truth is almost no one can chunk the ball very far and the most prized receivers are those who can “walk a really good down-and-out.”
What is impressive about the game isn’t the motley collection of has-beens, but instead, it is the longevity. This fall will mark the 50th consecutive year that the game has been played.
Mick Cornett, Mayor of Oklahoma City and a talented former sportscaster himself, has agreed to proclaim Thanksgiving this year in Oklahoma City as “Turkey Bowl Day.” It is expected that the same dozen or so players that always show up, plus perhaps some alumni from previous decades who moved away or got tired of being “really sore the day after the game,” will drive or fly in for the occasion. Some observers have wryly noted that often it is difficult to identify the players from those merely standing around and watching the game.
The current principal from Northwest Classen, the nearby high school where the players went to school, also promises to be in attendance. She has suggested that the school’s spirit band may even be on hand to lend support. Rumor has it that some former cheerleaders from the class of ‘66, now grandmothers, may also be attendance. Anyone in the stands would be a novelty.
Through the years, from time to time, I contacted local media for some pub since Thanksgiving is normally a slow day for sports. I do have some videotape from local TV stories and a nice front-page story the local paper ran documenting the game a few years ago. About twenty years ago, someone remembered to bring a camera and so there is an interesting visual documentation of men refusing to grow up.
As you can imagine, the have been many out of the ordinary and often humorous moments. One of my favorites involves a charter member of the game who found himself in a Mexican prison for ten long years after a drug conviction back in the 80’s. While he was in prison, players would all pose after the game looking out from behind the bars of the front gate of Taft Stadium. We would then send him the picture with the caption, “Thinking of you.” Grade school humor is seldom kind.
One interesting aspect of the game – only two of the regular attendees actually played high school football. The other members, particularly the founding gaggle, were just a bunch of non-jocks who thought it might be fun to get together and “play ball” prior to carving up the bird. That was in the fall of 1960. Someone suggested that the “play again next year.” It turned out to be a good idea.
My goal in writing you this letter is two fold. First, I would like to invite you to attend the game this year. We will provide a room at one of the best hotels in town, and also love to have you attend a pre-game cocktail party the night before. This is an idea I conceived only a few years ago. The fact is that the only time most of us see each other is Thursday morning during the game or at class reunions every 5 years. Players have enjoyed careers in just about every field imaginable. Several are now retired. Or two have died. But still the game lives on.
The party at my house affords everyone the chance to talk about hip or knee replacements, prostate issues, grand kids and retirement plans in greater detail. It will be fun this year to see how many of the guys now sport a “Jitterbug” cell phone or one of the devices that makes an emergency call and announces, “Help, I’ve fallen and can’t get up.” That invention might come in handy at this year’s game.
I think it would be novel for Sports Illustrated to carry photos of the Turkey Bowl members in their “Faces in the crowd” section. Maybe Sports Center would pick up the story. Maybe USA Today? Fifty consecutive years of a bowl game is no big deal. However, a game played for fifty consecutive years with the same players is. Do you have any advice as to contact persons?
One final note, well known sports reporter, Skip Bayless attended the same Jr. High and High School as the “Turkey Bowler’s.” Although he is several years younger, I’m confident Skip is aware of the annual game. Perhaps you know Skip? If so, I bet he will be happy to collaborate this letter. So will Mayor Cornett, or a previous Mayor (Kirk Humphries) who attended the same Jr. High and High school. Kirk never played in the game, but then again, he is a very bright guy who certainly knows better.
The newspaper story about the game carried an interesting quote from one of the players. The article noted that, “We have a lot more yesterdays than we do tomorrows.” The quote was made about fifteen years ago. The Turkey Bowl memories form a large part of those yesterdays. Today, many sons and daughters, and even a few grand kids, often show up to play. We do make them wait until we have either gotten our fill or pulled something. Perhaps the next generations will extend those tomorrows and the “Turkey Bowl” tradition will continue for many, many more years.
Chili Davis once quipped, “Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.”
That quote would be a fitting epitaph for this special group of ageless athletes.
If you have any questions, or better yet, answers, please call me. Or, you can reply to this e-mail. I am a fan of yours and it is a pleasure just to have you consider this letter.
I recently watched a program on ESPN’s entertaining “30 for 30” series which showcased the success and downfall of the Miami Hurricane football program. Miami won a record number of home games as well as 4 or 5 national titles as the program blossomed from a relatively unknown to a perennial gridiron powerhouse.
Featured on the program were numerous former Hurricane players such as N.F.L. star Michael Irving. The standout wide out glibly talked about how Miami players received bonus money “under the table” from an assortment of spurious friends and over-jealous Miami alumni.
The fact that this was illegal or violated NCAA rules meant nothing to the players who appeared on camera. Without exception, they laughed off the impropriety of their actions rationalizing it was “okay” because of all that they had done to “put the school on the map.” “The school and the community cashed in on our hard work and talent, so why not us as well?” was the common theme heard over and over throughout the program.
One player actually proclaimed with a straight face that the cash payments was actually a “good thing” because it meant that they players didn’t have to “steal car stereos” or break into the dorm rooms to steal other stuff” from students on campus. Jimmy Johnson, one-time coach, along with other Miami coaches who appeared on the program condoned the payments because “the players didn’t receive enough under NCAA rules.
At the time, the football program in Miami was composed of 99% black athletes — many were from poor inner-city neighborhoods. Obviously, I understand that I am treading of thin ice when I, a white guy, dare criticize these athlete-students (few were remotely student-athletes). The truth is that color has nothing to do with their conduct or this blog. Instead in comes down to class, of in most the cases, lack there of. However, growing up poor and more often than not, with no male role model in the home, has a predictable outcome.
Coddled athletes, black and white, exist in a murky dimension somewhere near the intersection of “The end justifies the means and we’re entitled to do this” streets. Many players featured on the program had no earthly clue that what they had done was or is wrong. No inner voice spoke up to remind them that stealing or breaking rules mattered. They were successful athletes and that was all that mattered.
Is it any surprise that players such as Irving end up with afoul of the law later in life? That they enjoy hanging out with prostitutes, gangbangers and pathetic sellers of modern pharmaceutical products. Given access to millions of dollars from professional sport teams, these athletes often feel empowered and totally unfettered by trivial things such as right and wrong. Compounding the problem, they quickly surround themselves with either two-legged remoras or pimp quality enablers.
The point of this blog is actually two fold. First, a big time university should pay these folks to entertain us. I wouldn’t event force them to attend class. What a charade that study concept is. Most have never understood the value of pursing an education in the first place. Their dream on the court or field is to make an opponent look bad as they “dunk” on them, or lower a shoulder and try to hurt someone running with the football. It’s “Hey, look at me macho-ism.” And above all, it is apparently important to act like a thug, a punk or to pretend that they are someone special. These are the false idols where the Hurricane football players and so many others knell to worship.
Again, often the athletes are black. But it is not about color of skin. Jerry Rice didn’t taunt an opponent whenever he scored. Neither did Barry Sanders, Bill Russell or Willie Mays. These guys played with cool and class. Perhaps they are products of another time. When respect for yourself manifested itself in respect for your opponents.
Today, when you’re some trash-talking punk for some inner-city cesspool, the end product of a mother so desperate for love and affirmation that she didn’t know how to say “no,” and a father who possessed the moral compass of a stray dog, well, you may have drive and athletic prowess, but that is not the same as class.
My second suggestion would be to pass a law that says that any coach convicted of breaking the NCAA rules, cannot be hired by another NCAA school for ten years. Coaches that fail to live up to the guidelines should understand that there are consequences for actions. I would also take some percentage, say 40%, of their annual compensation and hold it in an escrow account.
Fulfill your contract with no violations, and when you leave, you collect in full. If you fail to live up to your contact by having your program be put on probation (Miami), you forfeit the money due you. At least when guilty coaches flee to division 2 schools or to the pros, a personal price for their ill-advised actions could be assessed.
This might not have stopped the revolving door of coaches at a school that condones cheating, but it might give pause to those coaches waiting in line.
What I watched during the “30 for 30” show it made me sick. It reflected a society that prizes success over character. The truth is who gives a damn who wins the national championship in a sport? Only the die-hards, the rah rah for my school nuts who must desperately need to compensate for some shortcoming in their life. The victories in sports are fleeting. If only we could say the same for the stench their actions on the field so often leave behind.
I think about death a lot these days. Perhaps it because as the sands trickle through the hour glass, you wake up and suddenly realize that everything and everyone you love comes with an eventual sunset.
One of our two current females, Asha, is pregnant. This could be an exciting start of another generation of elephants at our zoo.
If we are going to punish players for tawdry, immature and dumb-ass conduct, then let’s apply the same standards and penalties to those officiating sports.
My most recent scientific poll: Most people who drive pickup trucks are rude, dangerous, stinky, idiots.
Everyone is frozen with fear, faces white as death as they hit their brakes in panic.
I suspect that if more parents were given time behind bars for the repugnant acts of their offspring — we would be experience a dramatic reduction in such senseless acts .
I have written over 20,000 radio and television commercials. Lauren will you with a straight face — 5 or 6 are “pretty darn good.”
My fondest wish for all three of my children is that someday they will meet the Lauren of their lives
Before you are blindly swept up in a statewide Republican electorial tidal wave in Oklahoma this fall, please read this.
Today I may be the victim–but tomorrow it may be you–until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.